The Most Rev. Robert P. Deeley, newly appointed bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, promised Wednesday to protect children, serve the poor and the sick, and continue efforts to strengthen Maine’s parishes and grow the priesthood.

Maine Catholics and people who know Deeley have great expectations for Maine’s new bishop, seeing shades of Pope Francis in the Boston-area native who has served in the Vatican.

Others are concerned that Deeley, who is now auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston, is a “company man” who won’t bring the change that critics want in the way the church handles issues such as gay rights, abortion and sexual abuse by clergy members.

The Vatican announced Deeley’s appointment by Pope Francis at 6 a.m. Wednesday, ending a 17-month wait for news of a new leader for Maine’s 193,392 Catholics. Deeley will be formally installed as bishop during a special Mass on Feb. 14 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.

Bishop Richard Malone, the current apostolic administrator and former bishop of the Portland diocese, introduced his replacement at the Chancery in Portland. Malone, who has known Deeley since the two men entered the seminary together in 1964, became bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., in August 2012.

“God promised, ‘I will give you shepherds,’ ” Malone said, quoting the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. “Sometimes we have to be patient in the fulfillment of that promise.”

Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said Deeley’s appointment reflects the pope’s ongoing effort to remake the church in a more moderate image, emphasizing service to the sick and poor and suggesting non-judgment of homosexuality, a position that was taboo in the Vatican under Pope Benedict.

Cafardi, one of the foremost voices on church law, met Deeley when they attended seminary together in Rome in the early 1970s. He spoke highly of Deeley’s legal accomplishments and his empathetic nature.

“He has no problem identifying with people who are suffering,” Cafardi said. “(He’s) the type of person (Pope) Francis said he was looking for, someone who understands the poor and the disenfranchised.”

Cafardi said he expects Deeley to follow the example of Pope Francis, saying he won’t be a “culture warrior bishop” focusing on the church’s battles against abortion and gay marriage, but will focus more on service to those in need.

CONGREGANTS HAVE HIGH EXPECTATIONS

At a news conference Wednesday morning at the Chancery, Deeley said “the protection of children is a priority” for the church and will continue to be a focus of attention for the Diocese of Portland.

Deeley told reporters that he has no detailed agenda in taking a job in a state where he has frequently skied and vacationed on the coast.

“Today marks the beginning of a new relationship,” said Deeley, 67. “I am climbing on a moving train, is the way I see it. I come with no set plan or program.”

Catholics on their way to noontime Mass at the cathedral in Portland on Wednesday expressed high expectations for Deeley.

“I hope he proves to be a man of simplicity, understanding, charity and hope,” said Peter Minvielle of Portland.

Aileen Morrisey of Kennebunk said she hopes that Deeley shares the pope’s aspirations.

“I hope that he embraces humanity, that he embraces all people, that he’s not judgmental but loving,” Morrisey said. “I pray that he does God’s will and encourages love among all people.”

Peter Doyle of Portland said he hopes Deeley will respond to the needs of the flock and promote the teachings of the church.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented dozens of victims of sexual abuse by the clergy, said he has doubts about Deeley. He said Deeley’s positions in the Boston archdiocese at the height of the child abuse scandal raise questions about what he knew about priests who abused children.

“He seems to be a company man, who unfortunately will probably continue to maintain the secrecy which allows innocent children to be sexually molested by pedophile priests,” Garabedian said.

LEADING BY ‘LIVING THE TRUTH IN LOVE’

During the news conference, Deeley said he’s impressed with the quality of diocesan staff members and hopes to further efforts to strengthen Maine’s parishes into “workable collaborations” and promote religious vocations, such as the priesthood.

After several years of consolidation, Maine now has 155 churches in 56 parishes overseen by 143 priests. At its peak, in the 1950s, the diocese had 230 priests. Maine’s current Roman Catholic population is down 32 percent from 286,408 in 1990, and only 25 percent to 30 percent of Mainers who say they’re Catholic are active church members, Malone has said.

The church has, in recent years, pared down its number of parishes and closed several churches. Officials with the diocese, which encompasses the entire state, didn’t respond to a request Wednesday for financial information about church operations statewide. In May, church officials said the total insured value of real estate holdings in Maine was $720 million, with about 30 properties, mostly churches, up for sale.

Considering the growing tension in Maine between public spending for social services and other government programs, Deeley said he doesn’t intend to increase political activity by the diocese. However, he said, “if there’s a moral issue that needs to be confronted, the diocese will confront it.”

He also said he plans to promote awareness of the church’s value of human life and the work of hospitals in the diocese.

Deeley mentioned Pope Francis several times, noting that when the pope first spoke publicly, he asked his flock to pray for him. Deeley asked that the public do the same for him as he takes on a somewhat overwhelming assignment.

“I ask for your prayers, then, that I might be worthy of the task asked of me,” he said.

Deeley also harkened to the pope’s recent emphasis on the church’s longstanding role in serving “the poor, sick and needy among us,” and said the motto of his leadership would be “living the truth in love.”

STEADY RISE WITHIN THE PRIESTLY RANKS

Deeley was born in Cambridge, Mass., and grew up in nearby Belmont, the fourth in a family of five sons. His parents were born in County Galway, Ireland, and they raised their children with a deep respect for the church and the priests at Sacred Heart Parish in Watertown, Mass.

“Very early on, I wanted to be like them,” Deeley said.

Deeley attended Matignon High School in Cambridge, then Cardinal O’Connell Minor Seminary in Jamaica Plain, Mass., to study for the priesthood.

After two years of college, he received a Theodore Basselin Foundation Scholarship and began philosophy studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., graduating in 1968. He earned a theology degree from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1972, then returned home and was ordained on July 14, 1973, at his home parish in Watertown.

His first assignment was as associate pastor at St. Bartholomew Parish in Needham, Mass. He was appointed secretary to the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Boston in 1978, beginning a ministry in the tribunal that endured for more than 20 years and serving the last 10 as judicial vicar.

During that period, he lived at Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Parish in Newton, Mass., and St. Brigid Parish in Lexington, Mass. He was named a prelate of honor (monsignor) on Dec.13, 1995.

In 1999, Deeley was named pastor of St. Ann Parish in the Wollaston section of Quincy, Mass. He became president of the Canon Law Society of America in 2000. He went to Rome in September 2004 as an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and served until being named Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Boston in the summer of 2011.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, said Deeley’s leadership will be missed in the Boston archdiocese.

“Pope Francis has blessed the clergy, religious and faithful of the Diocese of Portland by naming the Most Rev. Robert P. Deeley as their 12th bishop,” O’Malley said.

PLAYED ROLE IN CLERGY ABUSE RESPONSE

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a cadre of bishops in Rome that since the abuse scandal has largely been responsible for responding to hundreds of complaints against clergy members. Deeley was assigned to help reduce the backlog, Garabedian said.

Cafardi, the expert on church law, dismissed the idea that, because Deeley was in the Boston archdiocese during the abuse scandal, he was in some way directly involved. Cafardi, a co-author of the National Review Board’s report on the abuse scandal, said that in the extensive research and interviews done to assemble the 2005 report, Deeley’s name never came up.

“That’s the kind of guilt by association that I hope most Christians would avoid,” Cafardi said.

Local and national anti-abuse groups have called for Deeley to open the diocese’s records on abusive clergy members, and do what more than two dozen archdioceses around the nation, including the Archdiocese of Boston, have done already: publish the names and judicial outcomes of priests who are accused of abuse.

In a statement issued shortly after Deeley’s appointment Wednesday, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a national victim advocacy group, said the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was integral in an orchestrated cover-up of abuse, and called for transparency about priests’ past crimes.

“This is a bare-minimum public safety step that every prelate should take,” the group said.

During the news conference, Deeley said he trusts that the Diocese of Portland has taken appropriate steps to publicize information about priests charged with sexual abuse.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

Twitter: @KelleyBouchard